In India it is almost impossible to have everyone agree on anything. We have our opinions on virtually all matters- whether or not we know anything about the issue is of little consequence. Thus the good old Addas ( an expression used in Kolkata for gathering of friends in street corners, tea shops, verandas etc. where there is endless discussion on local/ national/international affairs, politics, sports, films, literature, religion and spirituality etc. etc. ) are extremely colorful spaces with high decibel levels and heated exchanges of both ideas and feelings. Invariably, these Addas do not lead to any final outcome. Nor do they end with bitter acrimony. They usually end when they reach a point which all parties can “live with” and are willing to give up/postpone their need to establish the supremacy of their view point.

I have come to believe that this is the only viable way of living with differences in the Indian context, if we wish to retain our ethos of diversity and plurality. I have called it the principle of relative consensus i.e. some thing around which there may not be complete consensus but something that every one can live with. This is fundamentally different from the concept of “majority rule”. Majority rule is a quantitative construct whereas the principle of Relative Consensus has a strong qualitative dimension.Let me illustrate the difference with a help of an example.

Imagine a situation where 5 people have to chose between two alternatives- A &B. Let us say three of them prefer A and two prefer B. In such a situation by the logic of majority rule, A will be considered the obvious choice. However let us add another dimension wherein we also consider their orientation towards the alternative which they rejected. Let us say the three people who preferred A have no serious reservations about B, and only a slight preference for alternative A. On the other hand the two people who have opted for B have serious reservations about alternative A. Needless to say, this input changes the situation dramatically whereby B becomes the superior alternative as all five can comfortably live with it. Undoubtedly it will leave the three people who preferred A somewhat disappointed but it will not sow the seeds of major strife in the group which alternative A would.

I also believe that one of the main factors which has enabled the flowering of diversity in India is that it has tended to rely more on the principle of Relative Consensus rather than Majority Rule. The very notion of Panch Parmeshwar is based on this principle. Note that Parmeshwar (divinity) is associated with them as a collective of five. They are not 5 separate individuals but one coherent whole which strives to search for the Relative Consensus that everyone can live with.

I have tried to put together some of the main ingredients/prerequisites of this principle-

Providing space for expression of all view points no matter how miniscule a minority they represent

  • Dialogue with a spirit of understanding the “other” and making oneself understood rather than establishing the supremacy of one’s own view point
  • Sensitivity to “non-negotiables” of the involved parties and ensuring that the dialogue does not get entrenched in the conflict between these “non-negotiables (e.g. Territorial integrity vs. freedom of expression)
  • Attempting to arrive at a position which all parties can live with even if they do not fully subscribe to it.
  • Treating majority rule as a last resort and holding it as a collective failure (of not having been able to arrive at a workable consensus ) and not as a victory for some and defeat for others.

Needless to say the principle of relative consensus is a messy affair. Its major draw back is that it tends to reinforce the “status quo” and allows for only incremental change, as we have witnessed in case of Indian civilization. It is much simpler to count the numbers and then gag the minority voice. In that sense majority rule is as oppressive and despotic as any other form of dictatorship with the added advantage of moral legitimacy derived from the collective mandate. There is perhaps an inverse relationship between the principle of relative consensus and the speed at which we can move. It is therefore not surprising that generally people who are concerned primarily with techno-economic progress, tend to prefer despotic regimes (even if they are structural democracies like Singapore) where there is greater uniformity and order and where things can move fast.

The other main difficulty with the principle of relative consensus is that it reinforces the structural inequities of the system. This too we have witnessed in case of Indian civilization. Thus people who are struggling against these inequities (e.g. Caste system) will understandably feel impatient with the snail’s speed with which we seem to be moving.

The central point that I wish to make is that while principle of relative consensus has played a stellar role in our success of living with differences, it has also hampered us particularly in the areas of techno-economic progress and in our struggle against the baggage that we have received from our heritage. We can not wish away this tension but must face it squarely. Needless to say, no resolution of this tension will be fully satisfactory but are we willing to engage with the difficulties which are inherent in a diverse, pluralistic society which also wishes to be progressive and also has considerable historical baggage to deal with. If we do then some of the prerequisites would be that –

 

  1. We stop beating each other either in the name of Deshdroh or in the name of Manuvaad.
  2. We learn to be sensitive to the context and compulsions of different parts of this plural society
  3. We learn to recognize the need for coherence and convergence in our togetherness without diluting the distinctiveness of each other. Perhaps the metaphor of a “salad bowl” (where each constituent retains its distinctive identity and yet there is a coherent whole) is much more relevant for us than the metaphor of a “melting pot” where each part becomes like any other.
  4. We learn to grace our shared civilizational heritage and acknowledge both its gifts and burdens
  5. We develop our own narrative of economic progress and stay clear of meaningless race of becoming a super-power
  6. We develop our own narrative of a just and equitable society and align constructs such as individual freedom, democracy, secularism etc. to our context and predispositions, and finally
  7. We revisit some of the non-negotiables in which we have entrenched ourselves

Perhaps there are many other items which can be added to this list, but it is already seeming like a pipe dream of a romantic idealist. For whatever it is worth ,I don’t think we have any other choice if we wish to stay clear of the royal road to self-destruction

3 thoughts on “Principle of Relative Consensus

  1. Dear Ashok,
    While reading this post, I found myself appreciating the “concept” of the Principle of Relative Consensus. This is the basis of how I now understand decisions were taken in different communities, be it large families, communities, villages and so on.

    What struck me while reading was how I termed this method as a “concept”, and found myself in touch with my deep cynicism. You have mentioned how “generally people who are concerned primarily with techno-economic progress, tend to prefer despotic regimes”. I think for me personally, and probably a lot of people I know, we have no real experience of progress other than “techno-economic progress”, which is in my understanding a very survival driven individualistic power-centric form of progress.

    While you do mention the need to “develop our own narrative of economic progress”, I think the real need also is to be able to individually believe that there may exist and sustain a form of progress which is different from the one that I currently know of, or have experienced. Even if I individually believe in it, can I “survive” in a context entrenched in a survival driven individualistic power-centric form of progress. Even if small fractions of individuals are not able to see anything other than the current form of progress, don’t they have the power to manipulate and derail relative consensus seeking ways?

    When I read the post, I find it to be an extremely gentle and almost maternal-istic way of decision making with certain problems/disadvantages (such as reinforcement of structural inequities) when we get entrenched in it. While the current way of decision making seems like a very rational and masculine way of deciding things (with its own set of problems), but when you suggest majority rule as being a last resort, would it not mean that real legitimate power holders in the system would remain the majority? If we were committed to a way of reaching Relative Consensus, why not flip a coin to arrive at a decision at the event of a failure.

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  2. Thank you Sharad. I stand corrected. You are right- flipping of coin is a better last resort than majority rule. In a more acceptable language it will mean “leaving things to the divine will” On the face of it, it sounds irrational but in fact is only an acceptance of the limits of rationality. I have no cogent response to the other issue(s) that you have raised. Having moved in a certain direction, we can not take a 180 degree U- turn. Even retracing a few steps may not be easy, but we can take a pause and ask ourselves as what would be meaningful from here onwards. This I believe, applies both at individual and collective levels. Personally, being member of a privileged minority, I have got accustomed to certain creature comforts. It is not easy for me to give them up nor do I intend to. But I can certainly say NO to conspicuous consumption and mindless consumerism. Similarly shifting the focus from from GDP centric growth to quality of life may not be very easy but if there is a substantial minority voice then its concerns will have to be taken into account- not to its complete satisfaction but in the spirit of relative consensus.

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  3. Ashok and Sharad,

    I have designed and used the method called Koodam very successfully in the development field (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1t1PiRDnc4; this is the URL for the film by Kailasam on our work with water security in TN); There are two ideas that underpin the design: Firstly, that having rigid identity locations is dysfunctional to the collective (the villagers articulate this beautifully) “One belongs to the village and ones own community and ones family, so we have to invest in the good of the whole”. Secondly, one can set aside role differences and come together for a collective purpose.

    We have seen this work again and again in Bharat, we find it very difficult to make this work in India! the question “what is in it for me” seems to become the final point of decision making. No democracy can thrive without the idea of the whole being in a meaningful balance with the idea of the part, and ultimately of the individual. The idea of the democracy we are imbibing is based on the idea of an atomised “homo economicus”. This allows one to demand from the whole without asking how do i contribute. The Left spoke of a socialist India and corrupted it with skilful manipulation. The Right is demanding a collective idea, without understanding differences. Both are forms of colonised minds.

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